Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Thanks to TB for the photography.

Do you know what it’s like to read a book and have it haunt you, like a whisper or the faint hint of perfume in an empty room? I’ve always been possessed by the gorgeous Gothic-ness of Rebecca, which has mystery, ghosts, passionate love and a big, haunted house. And then of course, the most intriguing opening line………”Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

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I admit, rather shamefacedly, to having reread this on Audible, listening as I  cooked. It’s hard sometimes to put everything down and read a book with pages, as pleasurable as that is. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a very dear friend called Richard, about what constitutes pleasure in life. We both agreed that food, sex, wine, and music are all true pleasures, but I added two more – turning the pages of a wonderful book, and coming to really fantastic part in a book. You can’t beat any of those, but as with everything in life, you have to find the time, or a way to combine them. Hence, cooking with Audible.

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Anyway, the gist of this book is thus: a young woman meets the handsome, debonair and rather gloomy Max de Winter in the south of France, falls in love with him, and he whisks her off to a very quick marriage and honeymoon, before taking her home to his gothic mansion by the sea, called Manderley. Can you see why I fell in love with this book?

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Max’s first wife, Rebecca, had drowned a few years earlier, and the house is ghostly with her presence. Her initials are on everything, her clothes are still in the house, her perfume hangs in the air, and perhaps worst of all, her spirit still seems to haunt the living, particularly Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who adored Rebecca.

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I was fortunate enough to cook this week’s recipe at my wonderful friend Elizabeth’s house, when I was house- and dog-sitting for her.

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Her kitchen is absolutely stunning, full of light and gorgeous appliances, and the perfect place to both cook a marvelous meal and to also sip wine and listen to the the ongoing adventures of our heroine, Max de Winter, the evil Mrs. Danvers, and imagine myself within the marble walls of Manderley.

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The unnamed heroine – no, she is never named – meets Max when she is working as a companion to the hideous and vulgar Mrs. Van Hopper and they are staying at a fancy hotel in the south of France. The heroine loathes her employer, and this dislike comes through clearly in this passage, which inspired me.

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…..compared to Mrs. Van Hopper, her fat, bejeweled fingers questing a plate heaped high with ravioli, her eyes darting suspiciously from her plate to mine for fear I should have made the better choice.

I love a good ravioli, stuffed with cheese or anything else. Though I don’t yet have the Kitchen Aid attachments for rolling and cutting homemade pasta, that’s on my list. In the meantime, I used premade ravioli from the marvelous Italian deli Tully’s, and my own tomato cream sauce with sausage and chicken. This is my own method, devised after too many pots of tomato sauce to mention.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 white onion
5 cloves of garlic
2 14-oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
2 heaping tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 cup half-and-half
2 bags of premade ravioli
4 cups spinach
8 oz Italian sausage
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a pot. Finely chop the onion and garlic. Add to the oil and butter and saute for about 10 minutes.

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Mince the oregano, basil, and rosemary. Wonderful smells! Add to the onion and garlic, and stir together to cook, another 10 minutes.

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Pour in the tomatoes and stir again. Crimson heaven!

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Add the red wine and the chicken bouillon paste, stir to mix, then cover and simmer for an hour.

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In another skillet, cook the sausage for about 5 minutes, then add to the tomato sauce. Cook another hour on a low simmer.

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Cube and cook the chicken in a pan until it’s pink and cooked through. Add to the tomato sauce to finish cooking.

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Finely blend the sauce in a blender. Pour back in the pan to stay hot.

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Toss in the spinach to wilt in the hot sauce. Stir, cover, and let render down.

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Add the half-and-half here, to make a lovely pinkish-red emulsion.

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In another pot, boil the ravioli in salted water for 3 minutes, then finish cooking them in the hot tomato sauce.

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Plate up by putting some of the luscious sauce onto a platter, topping with some ravioli, and dolloping another large spoonful on top. Then, simply enjoy with a sigh of pleasure.

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The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

Photography by me.

Are you a Venetian at heart? I am, and any book set in Venice has a special place on my bookshelf. Venice is the most beautiful place on earth, because it shimmers. That’s the only way I can describe it. The waters surrounding the islands, the lagoons with their sea-green waves, the sight of the church towers from Piazza San Marco or Isola di San Michele from the Fondamenta Nuova……….pictures don’t do it justice and I have rarely read a book description that fully does, either. You simply have to visit Venice and see its gorgeous, watery-reflected beauty for yourself.

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The Mirror Thief is set in three separate historical timeframes, and in three different Venices. Venice, Italy is the heart of the tale and where the story of conspiracy, theft, and some very odd metaphysical concepts of time, starts with the story of Crivano, an alchemist who wants to steal the secret of Venetian glassmaking in the late 1500s. Venice Beach, California is literally the midpoint of the book and the historical setting of late 1950s and the beatnik poet scene in which Stanley seeks out the author of the book that has affected him profoundly, and finally, the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2003, when Curtis goes on a quest to find Stanley, and instead, finds the book that has colored his entire life, The Mirror Thief, an alchemical book of magical poetry written about Crivano himself.

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The three timeframes are connected incredibly well, due to Seay’s expertise in both writing and connecting disparate concepts. I was hooked from the first sentence, and although I had to make sure and not lose the threads of the complex storylines and historical timeframes, honestly, this is the most engrossing book I’ve read in years. It also made me consider the concept of mirrors and reflections – do we exist only because we are reflected back to ourselves in a mirror? Can the mirror ever reflect anything but the truth? What is the truth, and how do we see it reflected back to ourselves?

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My favorite line is:  It is difficult, but probably necessary, to remember that books always know more than their authors do. They are always wiser. Once they are in the world, they develop their own peculiar ideas. I’ve never written a book, but I agree with the idea that books do become something completely different than what their authors intended. It’s inevitable, don’t you think? In reading any book, we all bring our own ideas, preconceived notions, heartbreaks, beliefs and convictions.

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A scene where Crivano arrives at an inn in the Rialto area to meet Tristao, one of his co-conspirators, featured some truly delicious sounding foods, including what I took to be another description for risotto.

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One of Anzolo’s Friulian serving-girls has emerged from the kitchen, bearing sweet white wine from Sopron. Before Crivano’s cup is full, a second girl arrives with food: tiny artichokes, rice porridge, Lombardy quail stuffed with mincemeat……………Crivano takes a spoonful of rice porridge – rich with beef broth and mushrooms – and chews it slowly, trying to imagine what Narkis would have him do.

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Risotto – rice porridge – is one of those deceptively simple dishes. It’s essentially stirring liquid into rice for 25-30 minutes until absorbed. Yet, like any other dish that relies on simplicity for its tastiness, it also relies on high-quality ingredients. Arborio rice is what is usually used, or Vialone Nano, which is a bit harder to find where I am. I decided some beef-flavored risotto bursting with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was in order this Sunday afternoon, based on the method clearly outlined in Chestnuts and Truffles post on making risotto like a Nonna. Ciao, bella!

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INGREDIENTS
1 14-oz jar artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup baby bella mushrooms (sliced)
3 cups spinach
6 cups beef stock and 1 beef stock cube
1 cup white wine
1 red onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

METHOD
Saute the mushrooms in half the olive oil and butter, about 10 minutes.

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Add the spinach, mix well and cook until the spinach has wilted. Set aside.

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Heat the beef broth in a large pan. Bring to a low boil and keep it hot.

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In another pan over medium heat, add the rest of the olive oil and butter, and cook the onion and garlic until soft.

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Pour in the arborio rice, and stir. The idea is to get the butter and onion flavors into the rice, and also to toast it a bit, again for added flavor. This is called la tostatura, as the rice toasts. So says my friend and awesome chef Luca Marchiori.

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Splash over the white wine, and give the rice another mix. Then start slowly adding the hot beef stock, one ladleful at a time. Stir each ladleful until the liquid has completely absorbed.

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Continue in this vein, repeating a ladleful of stock and stirring until absorbed. It’ll probably take a good 25-30 minutes. I find stirring risotto very therapeutic, along the lines of making caramelized onions. It soothes the heart and mind.

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When the risotto is al dente, add in the wilted spinach, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle over the Parmesan and again, stir.

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Serve with more of the same white wine you used for the risotto, and eat with sheer pleasure in your heart, dreaming of Venice.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Thanks to KRB for the photography.

The title was the hook for me with this book, not to mention the book cover. Yes, in this case, I did indeed judge the book by its cover, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though nominally a book for young adults, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a wonderful read, and I found the narrator, 17-year-old Jacob who’s at a crossroads in his life, to be funny and mature.

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One of the great joys of reading this book was seeing the eerie and unusual pictures that illustrate it. These photos are real, but show people doing the most odd things and often, give the impression of the supernatural. Yet they go so perfectly with the storyline. I normally don’t like books with pictures, other than cookbooks. But this book would not be what it is without the strange, sometimes frightening photographs that add such personality to it. It’s a perfect Halloween read!

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The book’s premise is a bit peculiar, pardon the pun. Jacob is an otherwise normal teenager, closer to his grandfather Abe than his parents, and one night finds his grandfather dying, murdered by some ghastly creature. Abe passes along some strange knowledge to Jacob, which prompts a trip to Wales to find someone named Miss Peregrine, a woman who took in Jacob’s grandfather when he was young, during World War II. What Jacob finds on the island where Miss Peregrine has a home for peculiar children is indeed odd, but funny, sad, and amazing at the same time. The peculiar children are just that, all blessed with odd talents or powers that make them “peculiar.” One is invisible, one can make inanimate objects come to life, one can levitate at will, one can set things afire with her hands, and one very peculiar child has a mouth on the back of her neck through which she eats. As Jacob arrives at Miss Peregrine’s house just in time for the evening meal, he gets to witness this odd eating habit, and the veritable feast of fresh fish and seafood, including salmon, firsthand.

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Kids with kitchen duty appeared bearing trays of food, all covered with gleaming silver tops…….sparking wild speculation about what might be for dinner. “Otters Wellington!” one boy cried. “Salted kitten and shrew’s liver!” another said, to which the younger children responded with gagging sounds. But when the covers were finally lifted, a feast of kingly proportions was revealed: a roasted goose, its flesh a perfect golden brown, a whole salmon and a whole cod, each outfitted with lemons and fresh dill and pats of melting butter………platters of roasted vegetables……….”

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So I decided to give salmon a whirl. It’s the one thing that I have always screwed up in cooking, but this method from the blog Damn Delicious looked delicious, and seemed simple enough. As I was cooking in honor of my sister Krista’s birthday and having her, my grandmother Leandra, my aunt Eva and one of my best friends Tina over for lunch, and the Birthday Queen requested salmon (along with a few other goodies), I combined this family celebration with today’s blog post and it’s one of my favorites.

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This is the cooking method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
8 salmon fillets, boneless and skinless
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup of shaved Parmesan cheese
Handful of fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon cornstarch

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 275F.

In a food processor, combine the Panko, the pecans, the parsley, and the Parmesan, until everything breaks down and you have a rough, nubbly texture. Like this.

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Rub a generous amount of butter on each side of each salmon fillet.2016-10-23-20-23-00_resized

Dredge each salmon fillet in the Panko/pecan/parsley/Parmesan mixture, again on both sides, pressing the coating in well with your hands. Heat a large grill pan over medium high heat. Liberally spray the grill pan with olive oil spray. Sear 2 salmon fillets at a time for 1 minute per side. Work in batches so the salmon doesn’t get greasy.

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Lay the nut-crusted salmon fillets on a foil-covered cookie tray. Bake for 6-7 minutes and check for doneness. The idea here is that the fish will continue baking and you DO NOT want overcooked, dry salmon. It’s better to have undercooked salmon than overcooked. And if by some unhappy accident you do overcook it, just order a pizza.

While the salmon is baking, make the glaze. It’s a quasi-teriyaki-type sauce and though a bit sweet for my tastes, actually went deliciously well with the nut-crusted salmon. I think the contrast of flavors did it.

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In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the honey, soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice and cornstarch. Whisk together and bring to a boil. Once bubbling, lower the heat and let the sauce reduce and thicken. Keep an eye on it so the sugar in the honey doesn’t burn. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. I have more of a savory tooth so I added more lemon and salt but go by your own palate.

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Decant the sauce and serve with the salmon and whatever side dishes you choose. I made the salmon and glaze with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, and roasted butternut squash with sage, pecans and blue cheese.

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And of course, it wouldn’t be a birthday celebration without a chocolate birthday cake with chocolate ganache icing. A feast fit for a birthday queen! Happy birthday to my dear sister, Krista! You bug the hell out of me most of the time, but I can’t imagine life without you. I love you!

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